The Ultimate Guide for the First Time Writing Conference Attendee

You: I REGISTERED! NOW WHAT? I’m attending ______________conference for the first time. What advice do you have for me?

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How exciting! You tossed your hat into the ring, and you, being a wise soul, are asking for advice, direction, and help. Which means you’re humble. You are humble, wise, and brave. And you write. We automatically love you.

I’ve gathered some of the most sage advice from some of the most seasoned conference attendees I know in order to put it in all in one location in a format you can easily print off and reference. Please don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of advice being offered. Take it in doses. Some of it might not apply or appeal to you. That is okay.

Here are the top ten bits of advice that came up the most. From there, the advice is random.

Let’s get started! (For a print out of this list, visit HERE.)

#10. Hydrate.

It is hard for your body to function without proper hydration! Bring a reusable water bottle so you can stay on top of your water intake. I cannot stress this enough.

#9. Be brave.

You did the first hard thing. You committed mentally and financially to come. Now be brave and talk to other people. To get the most out of your experience, open up. Participating in workshops, contests, online banter, and critique work can lead to friendships and connections that can be altering to your writing career. Sometimes putting yourself out there is difficult. Remember everyone coming to the conference loves writing! Some of my closest friends are writers I met at a conference.

#8. Take breaks as needed.

Navigating conferences large and small can be overwhelming. You might feel like a guppy among sharks. Really, we’re all clams in shells, starfishes at heart, merfolk in our dreams. Also, the amount of information being dished out can drown you. World-building! Pacing! Characters! Conflicts! Voice! Kissing scenes! Kissing scenes? Taking a mental break can make all the difference in such a stimulating environment. Retreat to a quiet place and recoup. Make sure you get the rest you need, and don’t underestimate the value of self-care.

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#7. Shoes matter.

Be comfortable! There’s usually quite a bit of walking. Yes, you sit in class after class, but sometimes it can feel like college all over again. Take care of your feet. And bring a bag to carry your things. Some conference provide bags, but bring one just in case.

#6. Snacks.

Many conferences do not allow outside food or drink because of the venue’s policies. However, most conference attendees will still pack an energy bar, a light snack, or even some carbs. Writing conferences are not sprints. They are a two or three-day endurance test. In the same spirit, sometimes our bodies respond poorly to traveling. Make sure you bring antacids, anti-diarrhea meds, extra fiber, and/or other similar products. You may not need them, but better to have them handy.

#5. Big breath.

You’re brave, remember? So you’re talking to everyone you sit next to and making friends, and that means mints or gum are a good idea.

#4. Pain killers.

All that walking, all the information, all the putting yourself out there can lead to a headache, sore feet, and/or an aching back. Or maybe you didn’t sleep well because you’re nervous. Bring the medications you trust to ensure you’re at your best. Sleep aids, energy drinks, Advil, Tylenol, and Pepto are all good items to have with you. I have yet to attend a conference where I didn’t take some Excedrin.

#3. Bring your preferred note-taking tools.

If you prefer a laptop, keep in mind outlets might be scarce, your shoulder might start to ache while hauling a heavy laptop around, and it’s a safety issue to have a extension cords draped across an aisle. Personally, I recommend the pen-and-pad route. You’re more likely to write down what strikes you, and your brain remembers better when we handwrite something as opposed to typing it. Also, not every instructor will have handouts, but some do. Instructors usually indicate if you will receive a handout, if they have a mailing list, or if you can take photos of their presentation. Be respectful of their intellectual property and ask if you may capture pictures of their slides if they don’t indicate at the start of the class.

#2. Be prepared to answer, “What do you write?”

I didn’t know or understand genres at all when I attended my first conference. It took time and a lot of help to sort out what I was writing back then. If you fall into the same “unsure” category, here are three quick ways to figure it out: 1. Ask other writers. They’ll be happy to help you find your place in this crazy writing world. Really. 2. What published books are like yours? If they’d be shelved together, that might be an good indicator of your genre. 3. Who is your intended target audience, and how old is your main character? The answer to these can also lead you to a genre.

And the number one answer?

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#1. Dress in layers.

Classroom temperatures in convention/hotel rooms can range from frozen wasteland to jungle heat…in a matter of an hour. A jacket, blazer, or sweater can make all the difference in your comfort. Every conference has a different vibe, but business casual is always appropriate where industry professionals are gathered to teach and take your pitch or talk about your manuscript.

Now that you have the top 10 reoccurring answers, here are some other gems.

Figure out what stresses you most and tackle it first. If it’s travel arrangements, sort it out. If you need roommates to afford the hotel, post on the conference social media pages that you’re looking to split the cost. If it’s finishing a query, or writing an elevator pitch, or finishing a draft, do that.

If you can afford to stay at the hotel where the conference is being held, do that. Usually conferences negotiate a lower price for their attendees, but these rooms sell out so book your room ASAP. Staying at the conference location buys you precious time in the morning. Also, a lot of visiting and parties happen after hours as people relax after classes. And, if you need to take a break in the middle of the day, you have a hotel room to which you can retreat. But if you need to get off site to clear your head, do that.

Have a WIP (a “Work in Progress”). When you have a manuscript you’re working on, you’ll get more out of your classes because you’ll be able to mentally apply what you’re hearing in class to what your writing at home. After the conference, it might take a week to recover. A conference or social hangover isn’t uncommon, even for the most social butterflies. But when you’re ready, you’ll be able to actually apply what you learned to your WIP. Otherwise, you’re just taking notes.

Relax, smile, and enjoy yourself. You’re about to have an amazing time with amazing people. There will be name badges, so don’t panic about forgetting someone’s name. If you’re bad at remembering names, keep a little notebook where you can jot down names, along with a tidbit to strike your memory later. Seek out those who you met online prior to the conference and say hello in real life.

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Write your name and phone number on anything of value to you that you’re carrying around the conference. If you leave your phone or bag or notebook or a book in a classroom or the bathroom and someone finds it, having it labeled means there is a greater change that it’ll make its way back to you. Marked or unmarked, if you find something, turn it into the conference’s Lost and Found.

Some people bring business cards to share their information with all of their new friends. Business cards are certainly not required, but if you have one, great. Bring it. But my advice: Don’t drop everything to get one or a hundred. Everyone has a difference of opinion on a business card, but as a first-time attendee, you’re totally fine NOT to have one. Most connections can be made more permanent by sharing a phone number/email address or finding each other on social media.

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If a class isn’t quite what you expect, it’s okay to slip away and try another. Instructors know there is a lot going on during the conference. They know people will come in and out of their classes.


Writers toss around a lot of weird terms. WIP, MC, MS, FMC, MMC, and more. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Consider entering a conference’s additional workshops or contests. This is a great way to make connections and push yourself. Your participation can be a turning point for your writing, too. It can feel scary to share your work with others, but in the long game, it makes it easier to turn your work over to a beta reader or critique partner. It prepares you to enter other contests, meet with agents, and query.

No matter your experience level, if you write then you are a writer. My first conference I said I was an “aspiring writer.” Hello, let me announce what a noob I am! We’re all aspiring.  You might feel like a fraud, especially when you attend a conference for the first time. You might assume everyone around you is published and deserves success more than you and WHAT AM I EVEN DOING HERE? Stop. Just stop. Even published authors feel like a fake at times. Don’t give it room inside your soul. Say it with me, “I write, therefore I am a writer.”

Familiarize yourself with the special guests, agents, editors, and even authors who will be in attendance. Now there is no need to memorize their names and faces and books and blurbs. But at least take a look at the list. I made this mistake at my first conference. I laugh at it now, but boy did I feel foolish when I learned *after the fact,* that the kind woman offering me advice was not only the Keynote Speaker, but Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer. We’re friends to this day.

If you leave the conference feeling down, beat up, broken, or like a failure, you’re not alone. Many of us feel the Post-Conference Blues. Please, don’t make the decision to quit in that moment. Please don’t say, “I’m never coming back.” Post-Conference Blues can hit just minutes after the conference ends, or maybe after day one. Or maybe not until weeks after.  Please, be kind to yourself. Allow yourself time to rejuvenate. Turn your attention to something else that sparks creativity. Read. Or don’t. Especially if it feels painful. If that happens, consider reading or listening to BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and/or BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert. They have the power to reset that creative funk. Trust me.

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To print this list out, visit THIS LINK.

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